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Australian Refugee Ban Curbs Human Smuggling

Sri Lankan asylum-seekers held up in Indonesia while en route to Australia

The Australian government has been sharply criticized for its crackdown on asylum seekers, but its latest effort appears to have curtailed human smuggling operations out of Asia.

Eight weeks ago Canberra imposed a temporary ban on asylum claims by Afghans and Sri Lankans who had risked all by attempting the highly dangerous passage to Australia by boat.

That decision followed a record number of boats arriving off Australia's northwest coast, filled with Sri Lankan Tamils who fled their country following the end of civil war, and Afghanis, particularly Hazaras, who claim they face persecution by Taliban insurgents at home.

The Australian ban was condemned by human-rights groups, including Amnesty International. But reports of boats making illegal voyages to Australia have sharply dropped since the ban was announced.

A director of the Hong Kong-based regional security firm Allan & Associates, Brad Allan, says the ban imposed by Canberra has received widespread publicity in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, which resulted in a substantial fall in the number of boat arrivals.

"The Australian government's policy of putting a temporary ban on these refugees, it has had an effect," said Allan. "Obviously news has spread, it was well reported in the international media and I think for the time being, at least, people may be looking at other places to immigrate to."

Under the new plan, applications by asylum seekers from Sri Lanka will be put on hold for three months, while Afghans will have to wait six months.

Canberra says the ban was imposed because of the improving security situation in both countries. Allan said that has intensified calls to act on the rising number of boats carrying asylum seekers.

"Well I think it is a sensitive issue. My feeling is that the majority of these refugees are economic refugees, not political refugees," said Allan. "I think the situation in Sri Lanka has now stabilized."

He also said the same can be said for Afghans seeking asylum.

Prior to the April 9th ban, boats had been landing on the remote Indian Ocean territory Christmas Island nearly every day, with more than 1,800 asylum seekers arriving on the island in the previous three months, often via Indonesia and Malaysia. But analysts say all indications are that number has fallen by up to 10 percent.

The Australian illegal immigration numbers are dwarfed by similar claims in Europe and America, but Australia's population is much smaller, and the debate about the asylum seekers is shaping up as a big political issue for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ahead of this year's election.